Saturday, May 5, 2007

The Adventure of a Lifetime

I want to begin every one of my blogs with "I don't know where to begin..." but for my latest adventure it seems to be the understatement of the century. I have quite literally just had the most amazing journey ever including a week in the middle which can only be described as the best week of my life. I know not where to begin, where I am left after this trip, or where to go from here, but it is certainly somewhere quite different than anything I could ever have imagined...

Somewhere along the road my life has taken a strange turn and I find myself some sort of a grown up I hardly recognize. When did Allysha become this world traveling backpacker who makes friends all over the world and ends up on strange adventures in foreign cities? When did I become the basis for a mantra among my friends "What would Allysha do?" When did my life become so amazingly exciting that even I being here for every minute of it can hardly keep up? And how do I begin to describe such a change, such a surreal experience, such a life? Sigh, I'll try, but there is certainly no conveying in words what this has been. Here we go... I set off on a rather optimistic trip two weeks ago today to Zurich, Munich, Amsterdam, and London, with a brief and unplanned layover in Paris. I just arrived home 2 hours ago after 32 hours in transit and while everything is still so fresh I have the need for some catharsis. The trip in itself was quite an undertaking: 5 countries, 5 strange grand foreign cities, 4 languages, 3 currencies, innumerable cultures, 1 Allysha, 0 friends. I set off alone, fairly prepared, a little nervous, but undoubtedly confident in my abilities as a human, as a woman, as a traveler, and most importantly of all for me, as an extrovert.

Zurich was a beautiful city, with the lovely Limmat River running amist the cobblestone streets, lovely European shops, and fresh spring trees finally in bloom. Europe has certainly taken its time in blooming this year, but it must have begun while I was on the train to Switzerland because by the time I arrived so had spring. The weather was amazing during my entire trip, the best I'd seen in Europe, hovering around 75 degrees. Zurich was mostly comprised of the most incredible clothing stores you've ever seen in your life, all of which would be absolutely irresistable if not for the price. My first day wandering, it pained me terribly not to be able to shop amist these well-dressed and quietly capable crowd (and I am usually fairly immune to such temptations). The city seemed like the best mall imaginable, perfect serene atmosphere, cute shop after cute shop, a river running through it and the dear Swissfolk going about their usual business.

The question, "What is there to do in Zurich?" became a joke among the hostel kids as we asked this repeatedly throughout our stay and no one seemed to have an answer. Depite the lack of obvious tourist activities, it was a beautiful city in which to spend the first few days of my vacation and get my first taste of Switzerland. The real highlight of the trip here however were all the wonderful people I met at the hostel. My first night a group of more than 10 English speakers ended up hanging out on the rooftop patio at the hostel and ended up going out, roaming around town together looking for fun in Zurich. Among other things, we found a funky little piano bar with a Bulgarian piano man named Valentine who played songs like Imagine, Hotel California, and a million others that everyone sang along with regardless of language.









One of the most shocking things upon arriving in Switzerland was the sudden and complete change of language. When I got on the train in Geneva, everyone around me was speaking French and the ticketman took my ticket in French (which by now for me is quite comfortable); however, as we passed through Switzerland people kept getting on and off the train and by few hours later I couldn't help but notice the obvious change in volume and LANGUAGE. The ticketman came around again to a group of rowdy German speakers (or maybe Swiss German, couldn't tell at the time but I can now), and I saw that the same man was now taking everyone's tickets in German. Wondering what I had gotten myself into not knowing any German, I headed into a whole new world that only got more culturally distinct as I travelled into Germany.
Without a doubt, I can say that Munich was the best time of my life. With no idea exactly why, rather than specific experiences that were particularly astounding, I am in love with Munchen for who I became there. No longer the inexperienced young American who left for France, I was the world-traveling, French-speaking, cool chick from California... yeah she travels alone, but no worries, you know she'll find a friend just around the corner and probably teach you a thing or two about this town too.

Two friends from the Zurich hostel took the train with me to Germany and I met another friend there so I was well-prepared to take on a new city. I had no idea what to expect of Munich and was ecstatic to find that the people were friendly and helpful, the food was delicious, Baverian beer is in my opinion the best in the world, and there was tons to do! What a great mix of historically interesting sites and nights full of great people just out on the town having fun.











I met more people in five days in Munich than I think I have any other week of my life, and by the end of my stay when I walked into the hostel either I knew someone there or I would in about five minutes. Everyone had something new and interesting to contribute, somewhere interesting they'd visited, a new and fun idea of somewhere to go, a great story to tell. We were all on the same page, backpackers always are... "Oh you're from California, cool! You're studying in France? Do you speak French? wow, that's so great! You're traveling alone, you rock that's awesome!" Not only did I constantly get to play the part of the cool Californian traveling all over who flitted into their lives for some instant fun, but I got to hear stories and learn things I never imagined. I am obsessed with some of those who flitted into my life for a few amazing days, the Swiss German boys, the crazy Canadian, that great gal from Colorado, so many Germans, and oh the Italians.
After Munchen, I learned that it doesn't matter what circumstances I'm thrown into, I will find people to help me get what I need and I will find friends. From the man who works at the gare (train station) to the girl who just moved to Munich from California and is now a tour guide, everyone along my path seems to point me in the right direction and lead me along my way. I
can do many things on my own but one of my specialties is finding people to guide me through everything I can't. There are few more satisfying feelings than accomplishing something great and finding your way gracefully through a difficult situation and traveling is just the ticket to provide one sticky sitch to solve after another.

Before I started traveling I had been a little nervous about being alone in Munchen for Easter. I had little choice in it and all of my friends from school were similarly planning to find themselves either traveling or alone in a foreign city. With nothing to be done for it, I didn't think too much more about it other than wondering what I might do that day, perhaps a museum. Hanging around the hostel that Saturday night, I found some guys I had met the night before who were now sitting with a cheery, sweet-looking gal and promptly joined them. She and I got on swimmingly and long after the boys had gone to bed we found or created our own adventures far into the night. It turns out that she is in the process of moving to Munich (still in the hostel-living phase), but knows the city well and has many friends in town, some of whom were planning an Easter Sunday picnic to which I was invited.

What an incredible Easter... on a beautiful day in Germany, a handful of kids coming from all different cultures headed to the park loaded up with a blanket, snacks, German meatballs, Easter Candy (from one of the girl's Omah, grandma in German), and a deck of cards (okay okay, there was some German beer involved, but when in Bavaria...). We sat around for hours, playing, laughing, joking, talking. I learned three new card games and the names of all the cards in German. I can now sing a song in Swiss German and can say "I don't speak any German," and "I'm learning German quickly."










Well I had nearly finished babbling through the rest of my trip when my computer ran out of batteries when I went to make pasta for a minute and not having saved at all, I've lost everything. Unfortuately (or luckily) for you, I have neither the time nor energy to continue rambling in the same many-paragraphed detail that I have been, but will instead be summing up quickly the rest of my trip (wait til you see what Allysha's idea of wrapping up quickly is, haha).

My time in Germany was so incredible that I remember thinking walking down the street one day that there would be a time of difficulty (probably not so far off in the future) and that when that day came I would accept it gracefully knowing that it was only keeping things in balance. In the meantime, I did my very best to soak up and enjoy every moment of happiness while it lasted. Little did I know how true these thoughts would be and that the second half of my trip would truly put my capacities for grace to the test.

I took the night train into Amsterdam, just for the day, as it was the cheapest flight to London off the continent and my railpass allowed me to take the train for free. This was a perfectly symbolic exit from Munich as it was difficult, exhausting, exciting, and left me disoriented and ready for bed (much like Munchen itself). I was quite comfortable wandering the streets of Amsterdam alone having already thoroughly explored this great city, but spent most of my day here resting or napping on the wake of such adventuring. I was happy to find that even outside of Munich my magical powers of making friends in strange places sustained. I befriended two adorable Italian boys who I found on the street in the Red Light District and amazed an American and two French kids at the hostel by switching non-chalantly between languages seemingly out of nowhere. I was thrilled to learn that rather than some trick of the trip, this actually seems to be a quality that I possess, which I hope to take with me to new and strange lands for the rest of my days.


Well, as is wont to happen when one is holding on by a thread and tiredness and disorientation are threatening to break in, things began to go wrong. I missed my plane out of Amsterdam. While I can point out or invent many reasons for this occurence, the truth as I choose to believe it is simply that it was time for things to go wrong. For those of you who have never travelled with me, my main skill in travelling lies in my somewhat astounding ability not to freak out. Generally when I find myself in situations that would reduce many the seasoned travel to tears (and certainly nearly every young girl just beginning to see the world), my reaction is not upset or disappointment which I am often sure would ruin my trip much more than a missed flight. Most often I find myself laughing at the ridiculousness of the predicament I find myself in and while looking towards what to do next generally decide that while I wouldn't have planned it that way, I'm probably better off. While I did not exactly enjoy having to buy another plane ticket, I found it not strange in the least that I should have now missed a flight and revelled in the fact that I no longer had to hurry to catch a plane but could relax for a while at the airport. Ever the eternal optimist as my friends in France will tell you, (they like to joke that nothing ever goes wrong in my life... to which I like to point out that things go wrong, but because I rarely see them that way it's much less traumatic).

Finally making it to London, I was still so exhausted from my travels so far, I was elated to be staying with the American friend of one of my friends in France. Courtney was studying in London and was my absolute savior during my time in England, where a missed flight was suddenly the least of my problems. Only the first night I arrived as I went to pay for my first dinner at an English pub, I discovered my wallet was missing. After ransacking every bag I had to no avail, darling Courtney let me use her phone to cancel all my bank and credit cards from cross the ocean and try without luck to contact the family. I now was stranded in London with no money, no way of getting back to France, and no plan other than get ahold of someone. Thank goodness I was there with friends or I have no idea what I might have done (though I'm sure it would have included quite a bit of the "freaking out" that I pride myself on avoiding). I spent the next few days wandering around the city with a few pounds in my pocket that Courtney lent me, admiring the sites from the outside without the money to enter them and trying, though exhausted, to enjoy beautiful England.

London itself was a very fast-paced city and in fact one of the top three (including Zurich) most expensive cities in the world (information I could really have used on the front end of planning this trip). Everyone seemed to be hurrying along over-dressed as if there was some grand event to which they were all headed and I was not invited. Being in this city, where everything was finally in English, at this point seemed like going half way home. It somehow occured to me as inauthentic (though I know it was not) to be surrounded by so many things familiar to my own culture. After so much time in lands where everything is foreign, London brought back to me in a way that so many men in German liederhosen could not, just how far I have come. I spent most of my time trying desparately to enjoy my time there with no idea what I was going to do, unable to contact home, and longing more than anything to return to my little dorm room in the west of France which feels now the only home I can accurately claim.

Eventually, and thankfully, my third day in London, after a sizable debt was owed to my hostess I was able finally to ring my mom and grandmother, who despite my dire circumstances, after a fair amount of questioning and frustration on both sides, Western Unioned me enough money to pay off my debts, finish my vacationing, and return to Rennes (though money was then on ever an issue for if I ran out, there was no more to be had). I spent much of my time in London sleeping, living off peanut butter and jelly (of which there is none in France so somewhat of a delicacy), and sitting in parks which in every country is a beautifully free passtime. I have never been happier than when my plane finally arrived in Paris, where though I would have to spend the night in the airport, I understood the people, the language, and the land.

My first time back to Paris since arriving originally, I had no idea the extent to which France has become my home, a safe place where, though things were amazingly foreign to me at first, things are not after all so very strange. I could not afford the morning trains as they were full and the only available tickets first class, so I spent the day (where else but a park) at Montsouris Parc with three euros to my name after the train ticket. I had a one euro McDo's cheeseburger (my first in France) with a coke and lugged all my ridiculously heavy bags up and down the streets until it was time to head home.

What a time... some of the best and most challenging experiences of my life. From the diligent, immaculate Swiss to the fun-loving people of Bavaria, a short layover in tall, serious, but ever-forgiving Amsterdam to the hectic streets of London, and finally home, home to those overly intricate silly buildings of Paris, and these funny people who speak a language which sounds always as if they are saying something strange and beautiful. And finally finally, to Rennes, where though they are French, they are something more, Celtic perhaps, more rugged like the coasts of this land, they are Breton. What luck I have had to have chosen this town where I can fit in a way I never will in the rest of France. What hope has an American of ever truly fitting in France? Little. But here, here I can simply be me, a bit of a hippy, as most students are here, a bit of an adventurer, as most Bretons appreciate though they are not truely so themselves, and a bit of Allysha, which though I may never truly FIT anywhere, seems to (so far at least) work the world over... or at least that small part of it that I have so far seen.

This trip has taught me so much about the world, but more than that, it has taught me about who I am. The process of integrating experiences as great as these can certainly be rough at times. Living on top of the world as I have been, comes always with its opposite. One moment I'm sure that nothing so amazing as my life has ever happened to anyone, but when the inevitable promise of transience occurs to me it is like a blow to the gut. I am spending so much time soaking in life, truly LIVING in a way I have never known that I feel I scarcely have time to breathe, to move, to prepare for whatever comes next. I'm sure when I get there I will be underprepared as always but I know now, whatever comes, I'm in it, I'm in the game, I'm up to the challenge.




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